Saanich school board forced to split seismic upgrade bill

Saanich school board chairman Wayne Hunter is calling foul after provincial officials said the district’s reserve funds must be spent on the planned seismic upgrade at Cordova Bay Elementary School.

Hunter said the Ministry of Education has routinely funded seismic projects, with school districts providing extra money for improvements that are best done during a period of construction.

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“They’ve looked into our finances and they see that we, in theory, are supposed to have about $2.8 million residual from selling North Saanich school,” Hunter said. “That’s restricted capital, and we need their permission to spend it.

“But up to this point, we’ve always supplemented seismic improvements like every district does. We try to put a little more money in to enhance the things that don’t fit under seismic.”

The amount of residual funds is closer to $2.2 million, after money was spent on taking down the old North Saanich school and doing some needed work at Saanichton Elementary, Hunter said.

He said the district was surprised by a letter from the ministry saying the district is now responsible for 50 per cent of the seismic-upgrade costs at Cordova Bay.

“It’s the game-changing that’s the big problem.”

Hunter said the district tries to plan ahead as much as possible.

“Now, they pull the rug out from under us,” he said. “We need to meet with the ministry and say, ‘What’s going on here? What are we going to do?’ ”

The ministry’s stance comes in reaction to a 2010 report from the auditor general saying there is too much cash held by some public-sector agencies, such as school districts, a spokesman said.

As a result, a cash-management strategy, included in the 2014 provincial budget, now requires school districts to consider sharing the cost of capital projects, including seismic projects, the spokesman said. One result will be to generate savings for the government by reducing the need to borrow money, he said.

The government is assessing school districts on a case-by-case basis, the ministry spokesman said. “For districts that don’t have significant cash balances, provincial funding for those capital projects will remain unchanged.”

At Cordova Bay school, which is due for a $4.8-million seismic upgrade scheduled to start soon this spring, the district had planned improvements such as better classroom design and upgrades to heating and ventilation, Hunter said. Plans are also in place to make improvements to Parkland Secondary, the next school on the seismic-upgrade list.

“We had attached $700,000 extra for Cordova Bay and we had attached $2 million extra to improving Parkland,” Hunter said.

“It only makes sense doing that stuff while the building’s being seismically improved.”

Saanich and other districts make building improvements as they can so that schools last longer and better accommodate the needs of students, Hunter said. A $1.4-million seismic project is just finishing at the district’s Deep Cove Elementary but was not affected by cost-splitting, he said.

The Sooke and Greater Victoria districts have not been affected.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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